WEIRDLAND: Uncommon Rock Stars: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Uncommon Rock Stars: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed

The term ‘rock star’ really came into widespread use in the seventies and eighties when the music business was looking to sustain the careers of its biggest names. The music industry was no longer happy to hop from fad to fad. It was beginning to realize the value of brands. There was no better brand than a rock star. By the twenty-first century, the term 'rock star' has been spread so thin as to be meaningless. In the twenty-first century it seems rather inappropriate to describe Kanye West or Adele as rock stars. These people are cut from a different cloth. The age of the rock star ended with the rise of automated percussion, the domination of the committee approach to hit-making, the widespread adoption of choreography and the advent of the mystique-destroying internet. The age of the rock star is over. We now live in a hip hop world. The game has changed. If we no longer have a breed that qualifies for the description ‘rock star’, how can it be that the idea of the rock star as a social type remains so strong? This didn’t happen yesterday. Back in 1973, just two years after the death of Jim Morrison, just as a new generation was beginning to warm to David Bowie’s tongue-in-cheek rock-star figure Ziggy Stardust – Texas Monthly magazine published what was the first recorded example of the term ‘rock star’ being applied to describe somebody who wasn’t a rock star. I don’t see any sign of the acts who came afterwards, who were born in the late eighties and nineties, accumulating successive generations of fans or acquiring the patina of legend in quite the same way.

If you were born in one of the decades immediately following the 1950s, a pantheon of rock stars provided you with a cast of fantasy friends who lived out their lives in a parallel universe. Now, like the cowboy, the cavalier, the wandering minstrel, the chorus girl, the burglar in the striped sweater, the top-hatted banker, the painter with his beret and the writer in his smoking jacket, the rock star must finally be consigned to the wardrobe of anachronistic stereotypes. In real life he has been overshadowed by brazen hip hop stars, and overtaken by talent-school munchkins who are far more manipulative than he would have dared be. His power base has been destroyed by the disappearance of the record industry, his magic fleeing in the twenty-four-hour daylight of social media. While they were on the stage they captured our imagination and our trust in a way no movie star or writer managed.  Rock stars were uncommon people. They were a product of the rise of post-war prosperity. They came from ordinary lives and had no reason to expect that they would ever be special. At the same time they refused to accept that they would ever be anything but exceptional. Many of them had careers that lasted far longer than their hits and their legends continued to endure. They endured because, like the stars of the great cowboy films of that earlier age, they were playing themselves and, at the same time, they were playing us.

Elvis Presley loved the company of females, whether they were adolescents smelling of Spray Net who just wanted his autograph, marriageable Eisenhower girls in rustling petticoats and white gloves who wanted to introduce him to their mothers, feather-bedecked showgirls ready to show him a good time in the dressing room, or even show-business professionals who weren’t sure whether they wished to mother him or shove him into the nearest cupboard and kiss his face off. By September 1956 Elvis was the biggest male sex symbol since Rudolph Valentino. But whereas Valentino had to get into costume in order to embody the full fantasy package and was only available on the big screen, the whole point about the new rock-star celebrity as embodied by Elvis was that while he might apparently live in the clouds he was still available in the normal world if you knew where to find him. A YouGov poll in the UK says that 29% of 18-24 year-olds have never listened to a single Elvis song. None reported to listening to him daily and only 8% admitted to listening to an Elvis song at least once a month. When pressed, only 12% said they liked Elvis, compared to the Beatles (23%) and Bowie (25%). The Guardian also reports that the value of Elvis merch and memorabilia is cratering, a bad sign leading up to the 40th anniversary of his death. Bookings for Elvis impersonators are falling. About the only positive sign is that streams of Elvis music are doing well, with 328 million streams in 2016. Compare that to Bowie (600 million) and Michael Jackson (1.3 billion).

Jerry Lee Lewis’ prodigious talent made him almost a novelty act. His only problem was that he actually was the redneck hoodlum his rock and roll peers only pretended to be. Fellow Southern boys were less easily thrown by Jerry Lee’s front, preferring to say he didn’t mean nothing by it, but even they were forced to concede that he would argue with a signpost. Whereas Elvis was professionally modest, the self-belief of Jerry Lee Lewis went beyond the quality it takes to get up on stage and command everybody’s attention with a prolonged ‘weeeeeeellllll’, passed directly through the braggadocio that showbiz traditionally expects of a headliner, and edged perilously close to an acute psychological condition. He was the first rock star to play up to his public image regardless of the cost. Furthermore, Jerry’s domestic arrangements made him more vulnerable. In looking at those arrangements from the twenty-first century it’s important to bear in mind that this was the real world for many people in the Southern states of America and not a Coen Brothers fantasy. Jerry Lee couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned. Sam Phillips had told him it might not be a good idea to take Myra with him to Britain, where a nymphet would inevitably be catnip to a press pack looking for a story about the decline and fall of morals in the coffee-bar generation. But Jerry was stubborn and in love. He didn’t return to Europe until the next decade and never recovered his momentum as a rock and roll star in the USA.

Born in 1936, the youngest of a poor but musical family, Buddy Holly had little reason to think he would ever amount to anything. In a school essay in 1953 he listed his many shortcomings writing, ‘I have thought about making a living out of Western music if I am good enough, but I will have to wait to see how that turns out.’ Gary Tollett, who sang on some of Holly’s records and came from the kind of west Texas town outside Lubbock that Larry McMurtry depicted in The Last Picture Show, said of his generation, ‘We thought more about work than we did about playing.’ Holly, the first member of his family to graduate from high school, thought he might get work as a draughtsman. The thing is, everybody liked Buddy Holly. His records ‘That’ll Be The Day’, ‘Oh Boy’, ‘Peggy Sue’ and ‘Rave On’, had been hits. His particular strain of ‘western bop’ had enjoyed surprisingly wide acceptance. He had even topped the rhythm and blues charts. He had appeared on all the big TV shows: Ed Sullivan and Sunday Night at the London Palladium in the UK. Nevertheless in the winter of 1958, barely a year since he had been at number one in the US Hot 100, twenty-two-year-old Buddy Holly found himself without funds and embarked his final tour. The longevity of Holly’s songs is guaranteed because the sadness of his passing places every note in a melancholy light. He had an optimistic, gentle self-mocking hiccup in his voice. He was as popular with the boys as Elvis Presley was with the girls, but for different reasons. Buddy Holly was the most influential rock star of his time, possibly of all time.

Jim Morrison's total abandon and blatant sexuality stirred the audience's emotion and the effect was both chilling and numbing.  On being a sex symbol, Morrison once commented: "Sex is just one part of my act. It is important I guess, but I don't think it is the main thing." His essential conservatism came out in an interview he gave to CBC radio in May, 1970: “I don’t want a revolution. A revolution is really just a switch from one faction to another. Democratic ideals are still worthwhile. I lament that so many people are living a quiet life when so many injustices are going on. I think that’s sad. The repression of sexual energy has always been the tool of a totalitarian system. I can’t talk much about sex. Sex will always be a mystery to me.” When he was about sixteen, Jim Morrison began reading Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy, finding insight into the the nature of man. He learned that all men, even his father, had to obey others. Nietzsche described a different kind of man who, because of his creativity and independence, answered to no man. This prophetic independence of the spirit opened hundreds of doors in Jim Morrison's mind. One of these doors may have been a deeper interest in music when Nietzsche described a musician as "a priest, a ventriloquist of God." His concert in Miami in 1969 would prove to be a turning point in his career and life. Beset by legal problems and years of alcohol abuse, Morrison was escaping to France not only to rechart his life, but also to salvage a dream. Paris was the home of the French Symbolist poets. If he couldn't find literary sustenance in that atmosphere, he couldn't find it anywhere. Morrison desired to leave the City of Night for the City of Light. Apparently Morrison had made amends with Janis Joplin just weeks before she passed away, and he was genuinely grateful for it. Jim Morrison was the perfect artist for the sixties generation, a representative mirror for the decade that started out believing music and love would set them free only to wind up ensnared by that freedom into decay and despair. He was faced with a hard choice: he could choose to totally become his rock-image, or he could fight to hold on to his true personality. True to form, Morrison chose neither option. Perhaps Morrison's real legacy is how he took the fear that accompanied the explosions into freedom in the sixties and, after first making it even more bizarre and apocalyptic than anyone thought possible, diffused it all by turning everything we were taking so seriously into a big joke.

Lou Reed had an unhappy childhood. His misguided parents thought electric shock treatment might snap him out of his adolescent unhappiness. Throughout his life it was difficult to know where his psychiatric problems ended and his overbearing personality began. The standard Velvet Underground review recounted their latest misadventures with the music business, described the state of the tensions within the band and ended by being slightly disappointed with how unadventurous record buyers were not supporting them as they had supported Led Zeppelin or The Doors. The Velvet Underground seemed to have missed the bus. Glenn O’Brien, who edited Warhol’s magazine Interview, commented about Lou that ‘he was brilliant, but had a lot of bitterness in him that fed a mean streak. A mean streak that alternated with empathy and great humour.’ Having apparently failed as a rock star, Reed was attempting in 1971 to reposition himself as a man of letters, publishing poems as Lewis Reed, and attending poetry readings with Jim Carroll at St Mark’s. Reed wrote a piece for Crawdaddy magazine, which was headlined ‘Why I Wouldn’t Want My Son to be a Rock Star or a Dog Even’. Its central thrust seemed to be that only a person with no proper sense of self would ever wish to be a rock and roll star. Some of its passages suggested that Lou Reed considered the life of the rock star beneath his dignity. Reed might have been enjoying the short holiday from the bohemian limelight back in his parents’ home in the suburbs but the rage for repute was building inside. His contradictory nature cried out for expression. He never lost his belief in the power and beauty of simplicity and minimalism in rock. David Bowie wanted to collaborate with Reed after signing a deal with RCA to release his album Hunky Dory. RCA threw a party at a club called The Ginger Man. Among the guests were Lou Reed and Bettye Kronstad, who appeared in the midst of Bowie’s cultivated fabulousness like the suburban figures they had become. Reed was still the elder statesman commercially rejected and Transformer would start to change his luck. Lou Reed made us believe that redemption was always equivocal but never impossible. —"Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars - 1955/1994" (2017) by David Hepworth

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